Raced Encounters, Sexed Transactions: ‘Luso-tropicalism’ and the Portuguese Colonial Empire

‘Portugal is one of the oldest nations in Europe, and through a desire to free its peoples it forged away from its peninsular domains. Then, throughout the centuries, it anticipated and pioneered all the great movements for the emancipation of the human condition. In a moment of febrile colonial convulsion, Portugal gave Brazil its independence, erased slavery from its penal codes, abolished before others the death penalty, miscegenated itself with all the races (sic) of the planet.’[1]

Portuguese colonialism is frequently seen as a different, more gentle model than its European counterparts. Indeed, the Guinean nationalist leader, Amílcar Cabral once noted that even among African nationalists the perception of the Portuguese as a milder colonial power was common. Specifically, Cabral recalls the comments of another African delegate at the 1960 Tunis All-African Peoples’ Conference, in reply to his analysis of Portuguese colonial oppression: “it’s different for you … you’re doing all right with the Portuguese” (cited in McQueen, 1997: 13). He expresses his frustration at being confronted with such interpretations of Portuguese colonialism, for they made the task of harnessing support for the fledgling PAIGC, the nationalist movement fighting for the independence of Cape Verde and Guinea Bissau, that much harder. Such an assessment of Portugal’s role as a colonial master was indeed prevalent at the time, and the very fact that Portuguese colonialism went on to outlast some of the most complex British and French models illustrates the difficulties faced by Portuguese-speaking nationalist leaders in their attempts to gain both support and recognition for their anti-colonial campaigns. More importantly for the purposes of my discussion, recent analyses of the Portuguese colonial enterprise have continued to favour interpretations that stress the privileged status of colonized subjects in Portuguese Africa. Within this view are Africans who themselves under Portuguese colonial rule were the lucky ones. In addition to the work of Gilberto Freyre (1945, 1946, 1961) and Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1962), I would include in this revisionist treatment of Portuguese colonialism writers such as Urs Bitterli (1989) and Marc Ferro (1997). For these critics, Portuguese colonialism represented: at its best, the most genuine template for European domination over other peoples and lands; at its worst, a more balanced approach to the subjectivities of the contact zone (Pratt, 1992).

To an extent, such perceptions are usually related to the fact that, in sharp contrast to the situation obtained in some of the other European colonial empires, Portuguese colonists did not forcefully exclude or condemn interracial sex. Miscegenation was from very early on fairly common in Portuguese colonial spaces, and the erotic dimension of the encounter with the non-European Other was seen as a natural by-product of the meeting of peoples of different races. In fact, this focus on the body of the (female). Other can be traced to one of the very first documents produced by a scribe sent out to report for the Portuguese King on the voyages of discovery. In “Letter to D. Manuel, King of Portugal”, of 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha noted of the natives that “one can easily imprint on them any mark we choose, for our Lord has given them good bodies and good faces as befits good men” (1963: 60). Interestingly, the scribe’s language suggests perhaps an incipient notion of the way in which Western colonial discourses came to link the physiognomic with the moral-the healthy, shapely body is seen as a sign of good, sound character. Vaz de Caminha reflects here the concerns later made central to the nineteenth century’s obsession with phrenology and notions of racial purity.[2] Moreover, Bitterli notes in his study that ‘During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Portugal sent out twenty ships a year, with a total of some 15000 voyagers on board, including no more than a couple of dozen women’ (1989: 64). The ‘natural’ and naturalized consequence is highlighted by the fact that the way the Portuguese soon began to engage in sexual intercourse with the women they encountered in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean is then read as one of the most fruitful by-products of (Portuguese) colonialism, rather than as a form of forceful contact. Although such relations and their offspring were still subject to discrimination, the mere fact of their existence underlined a belief in the way they might have ‘softened’ Portuguese colonial aggression, as the words spoken by Cabral’s interlocutor suggest.[3] Yet, in the end, I want to suggest, Portuguese colonialism was no less concerned with power and oppression than any other European form of colonial ideology. In what to their British or Belgium counterparts must have looked like a raggedly mob in charge of the asylum, the Portuguese nevertheless ran their colonial possessions with no less a tight hold on the local populations. After all, they put in place the mechanisms for the slave trade that would become one of the trademarks of European colonialism.[4] It is for these reasons that I want to stress the view that the practice of miscegenation within the essentially unequal set of social relations intrinsic to any colonizer/colonized power structures, and here specifically in the Portuguese colonial context, remains deeply problematic.

At the forefront of such readings of Portuguese colonialism has been the work of the Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre. Freyre argued in the 1930s that the situation in the Portuguese colonial territories warranted a different interpretation from that in other territories colonized by European powers. Basing his argument specifically, though not exclusively, on the Brazilian situation, Freyre designated such a process ‘Luso-Tropicalism’,[5] For Freyre, Buarque de Hollanda, Bitterli, Ferro, critics who have analysed the Portuguese colonial model from what I want to argue are self-interested perspectives, nowhere else have such cultural riches been bestowed upon the natives, multiracialism reached such an art form, or racial miscegenation given rise to such syncretic identities. Ironically, I am conscious as I write these words that the argument these critics propose, based as it is on what they see as a uniquely Portuguese form of colonialism, might in fact seem quite persuasive in these days of cross-cultural, hybrid identities. As the Brazilian anthropologist, Alcida Ramos, recently pointed out, ‘this image of the easily adaptable Portuguese who populated the colonies of Africa and America, thanks to their lack of prejudice toward black and Indian women, was to remain one of the strongest ideological artifices of Portuguese colonisation’.[6] And it is precisely for this same reason that I want to suggest that it must be resisted, challenged and debunked. Laughable as it may seem to the people formerly colonized by the Portuguese, the thought that a European nation might have produced ‘perfectly fully-rounded postcolonial identities’ has the uncanny quality of dovetailing seamlessly into Western notions of a New World Order in which Western craftsmen (mostly) have, once again, been entrusted with the final matrix. That it now appears to have become a useful, if not an instrumental ideological artifice of European discourses of post/colonial analysis, both specialized and popular, suggests why I think that now might also be time to reconsider its meaning, as unashamedly imperialistic models are being given new life in places such as Afghanistan and in the Middle East in general.

Although conscious, too, of the complexities of racial encounters within postcolonial cultural and political settings, especially in the context of the overtly Manichean ideologies of race that have been at the heart of Western philosophical and political thought since the Portuguese first set sail in search of commercial partners,[7] in this essay I examine the way mixed-race discourses operate in the more specific context of modern readings of Portuguese colonialism. Further, I examine how such discourses determine the identity spaces inhabited by the Portuguese themselves as colonizers.[8] Focusing on Freyre’s notion of ‘Luso-tropicalism’, I will explore the implications raised by a focus on the Portuguese as colonial masters, and as such intrinsic to the processes of the Othering European colonial project of the last 500 years, but simultaneously as themselves sensual exotic subjects Othered by such colonial discourses. I want to suggest, then, that Freyre’s Luso-tropicalism, in its quasi-Rousseauesque depiction of the Portuguese, introduces the notion of a politics of the possible which in effect re-authorizes European colonialism by leaving open the sense in which it need not have been as greedy and uncaring as its British version, as contemptuously racist as its French counterpart, or as cruel as the Belgian model depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. That the Portuguese left only one school in Timor, after 500 years of occupation, a 95% illiteracy rate in Mozambique at the time of their departure, and in Angola a political and social situation now seemingly beyond repair, is then juxtaposed to the rewards afforded by the Portuguese penchant to go native, and with the natives (see, for instance, Busia, 1962;: Ciment, 1997; McQueen, 1997).

Particularly revealing in this context are the recent pronouncements by Miguel Torga cited as an epigraph to this paper. Once repeatedly touted as a potential Nobel Prize for Literature winner for his extensive oeuvre, Torga, one of Portugal’s most honoured writers and a consistent if moderate critic of the Portuguese ancien régime, drew for his 1996 address to the European Writers Parliament on the same discursive archives that Fernando Nogueira, António Salazar’s Foreign Minister, charged with making sense of a brutal colonial system to the outside world, plundered in 1967. In Nogueira’s words: ‘Before all others, we alone have brought to Africa the idea of the rights of man and racial equality. We are the only ones to have practised “multiculturalism”, the perfect expression of a brotherhood of peoples. No one in the world challenges the validity of this principle. But there is still some hesitation to acknowledge that this is a Portuguese invention. To do so would enhance our authority in the world’.[9] Furthermore, that the similarity in their pronouncements is not at all unusual within Portuguese voices on their own colonial experience, effectively illustrates the blinkered vision the Portuguese favour of their own colonial experience (again see McQueen, 1997: Ciment, 1997; Egerton, 1943).

In this discussion, I explore therefore some manifestations of this recycling of what is clearly a dangerously limited reading of the Portuguese colonial project. For Freyre’s salacious trope of sexual encounters of the colonial kind, ‘Luso-tropicalism’, which he went on to identify as endemic to the Portuguese colonial theatre, ultimately serves only to confirm the established status of European colonialism as a whole as a transforming project. Portuguese colonialism becomes in effect metonymic of European colonialism. Thus my purpose is to explore the way Portuguese colonialism both positioned itself in relation to other European colonial models, and was seen by them as having been able to articulate a uniquely dialogical relationship with the non-European Other. The paper focuses on both academic and creative writing, and aims to demonstrate and understand the resilience of the interpretation that Cabral found himself confronted with.

Alternatively read as the first and longest surviving European colonial empire, or as responsible for failing to fulfil the very essence of the colonial mission through an inability ‘to take seriously the responsibilities’ of the white race, Portuguese colonialism remains mostly outside the burgeoning analyses of European colonial discourses, under the guise of Postcolonial Studies.[10] For Gilberto Freyre, the world owes the Portuguese the creation of the first creolized identities, and the conditions for the cross-culturalism that has since become intrinsic to postcolonialism. Although Homi Bhabha would probably flinch at the thought that he might be sharing a seat with Freyre when he speaks of the condition of hybridity as intrinsic to post/colonial discourses, I am tempted to suggest that, at a much crasser level, the latter already in the 1930s had identified the notion of rupture and instability so crucial to Bhabha’s analysis of British colonial structures.[11]

In brief, ‘Luso-tropicalism’ describes for Freyre the web of elements which determine Portuguese colonialism’s negotiation of its encounter with the Other. It proposed the view that as a ‘race’[12] of people who had come about through a long, violent but ultimately invigorating process of cultural, political and sexual dealings, the Portuguese fitted in perfectly with the peoples and lands they encountered.[13] As Freyre put it, in ‘A Threatened Culture’ (1940), while the Puritan left Europe intent on shutting himself off to the new worlds and peoples he might meet, determined to change and harness them for his (and the gendered pronoun is intentional) own purposes,

the Portuguese Christian in Brazil promptly made the manioc of the Indians his second bread-sometimes it was his only bread-; he took an Indian or an African to be his woman, sometimes to be his wife … The stem of the sugar cane served him as tooth brush. The tatu provided him with a substitute for pork; with the turtle he performed a series of gastronomical experiments in the tradition of Portuguese cookery. Of the leaves of the caraobucu, burned and reduced to a coal-like powder, he made a remedy for buboes, a complaint from which the sixteenth century Portuguese seems to have suffered as much, or almost as much, as the native.

Such views strike a chord with more than a few influential voices in the study of colonialism concerned with its transnational form. Thus in his reading of Freyre’s best known work, Casa-Grande e Senzala (1933; translated as Masters and Slaves (1946)), Bitterli, remarks: ‘[he] has drawn attention to the very marked sexual preference for exotic women shown by the Portuguese and has shown that to what extent, even within the family, physical relationships have encouraged the easy transfer of cultural elements‘ (1989, 68; emphasis mine). Neither Freyre nor Bitterli pause to consider the deeply problematic ideologies that underpin such encounters, since their position might be seen to result from a discussion in which the colonial subject is always male, always in an active role. Indeed, both highlight clearly the extent to which Portuguese colonization was ‘exclusively masculine’, as Ferro puts it (1997: 107). Interestingly, although I suspect that by ‘masculine’ he means ‘male’, the ambiguity is in fact pregnant with possibilities.

For the point is that if, as Bitterli and Freyre contend, it was not only acceptable but desirable that the Portuguese colonial/slave master should engage in sexual intercourse with the native women in Brazil (it was also good for improving the slave stock, and the sons of slave owners were in fact encouraged to ‘show a marked sexual preference for exotic women), the situation differed greatly with regards to dealings between white women and Indian men, let alone African slaves.[14] Distinctive hierarchies of both race and gender operated within the contact zone. In her examination of Brazilian national ideologies, Alcida Ramos contends that Indian men were purposely kept apart from their white mistresses. In this context sexual intercourse would have meant the ‘contamination of the White man’s own reproductive unit’ (1998: 68). In other words, far from being the benevolent process its advocates describe, miscegenation was in fact largely an act of violence against the colonized female subject. This is exactly the point Alfredo Bosi, another Brazilian critic makes in his reading of Portuguese colonial ideologies. I wonder if we might see their liminal perspective, at once outsiders/insiders to the postcolonial situation they analyse, as determining their ability to see beyond the sheer banality of an erotics of colonial desire that so seduces Bitterli, Freyre and Ferro.[15] Commenting on the so-called ‘lack of racial pride of the Portuguese’, Bosi writes:

The libido of the conqueror was phallocratic rather than democratic, for clearly it was unidirectional: the female slaves impregnated by the slave masters were not pulled up, ipso facto, to the category of spouses and ladies of the manor, and neither were the children born out of these brief trysts allowed to share equally with the so-called legitimate heirs in the patrimony of their progenitors. The exceptions, rare and belated, constitute little more than anecdotal evidence, and serve only to confirm the general rule (1992: 28-29).

Bosi identifies here the highly volatile imbrication of racial, gendered and sexual transactions in the Portuguese colonial possessions, and shows clearly that miscegenation rarely led to a more equitable balance of power between oppressor and oppressed.[16] Yet, in spite of such powerful critiques as those of Bosi and Ramos, and earlier ones of Lusophone African nationalist leaders and intellectuals such as Amílcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto, Noémia de Sousa, Mário de Andrade and others, the view that Portuguese colonialism was somehow uniquely successful in the merging of cultures and peoples of differing parts of the world, divergent races and sexes, is one which continues to fascinate outsiders-in spite, too, of its obviously exaggerated and false basis on reality. Indeed, in Bitterli’s oddly unsettling, but succinct and suggestive phrasing, ‘the Portuguese were supple in adapting to circumstances and sensitive in their responses to alien cultures’ (1989: 61). I want to suggest here that, based as it is on what Mary Louise Pratt has identified, in a different context, as ‘that great sentimental obsession, racial erotics’ (1992: 82) that so entertained the Victorians, Luso-tropicalism has proven such an enduring lens for reading Portuguese colonialism especially because of its voyeuristic overtones.

Thus, whether it be in the negative representations found in the work of the Polish emigré turned quintessential English writer, Joseph Conrad, in Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist or in minor narratives of ‘White African anguish’ such as Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa (1996) or Drury Pifer’s Innocents in Africa (1993), or in writings such as those of Timothy Mo, in The Monkey King (1978), or the Afro-American Gayl Jones, in Corregidora (1975), the Portuguese appear at once brutal and child-like, kind and calculating. Although read differently depending on the ideological stance of the particular observers, mostly the Portuguese are seen as more ‘in tune’ with local cultures and aware of what in more sensitive modern days would be described as the politics of difference. What for Conrad seems reason for alarm, since the Portuguese tendency to mix with the natives signifies an admission of racial equality that augurs badly for the dreams of white superiority intrinsic to Almayer’s Folly (1895), Under Western Eyes (1925), Lord Jim (1905), and in a much more complex and ambivalent manner also to Heart of Darkness (1902), appears to others as a sign of that tropical temperament that has made the Portuguese the ‘cordial colonials’. It is this deeply seated ambiguity, which at once recognizes, critiques and implicitly admires colonialism à Portuguesa (Portuguese style), which seems to me to make the recycling of Freyre’s formulations so disturbing. That it occurs in the most unexpected places makes it all the more important that one should attempt to understand it.

In the Afro-American Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, for example, a character speaks of the cruelty of ‘A Portuguese seaman turned plantation owner who took her out of the field when she was still a child and put her to work in his whorehouse …’, his ‘good little piece’, his ‘Little gold piece’, but then goes on to celebrate the synergizing potential for transculturation and racial hybridity embodied in such encounters between a slave master whom race does not deter from engaging in sexual transactions with his property, the African female slaves (1975: 10-11). As she recovers from the horrors endured at the hands of her Portuguese master, Ursa Corregidora dreams of a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs. A Portuguese song, but not a Portuguese song. A new world song. A song branded with the new world (59). On the one hand, such a song represents in Jones’ narrative both a strategy of cultural reinvention and an act of personal resignification. The dream, here very precisely the space the colonial master cannot control, allows the slave to imagine a free tomorrow. But the dream she allows herself is one already tainted with the slave-master’s ideologies. In this conceptualization of a fused identity for the future Corregidora suggests also that a predisposition to go native without much prompting, made the Portuguese prime candidates for the transcultural, hybridized identities of the postcolonial period. Focusing on a linguistic level of reading denied the non-Portuguese speaker, Alcida Ramos explains this unique connotation of the Portuguese colonial encounters by pointing out that in Portuguese the term ‘adventure’ carries with it a very strong sexual meaning, in the sense of an illicit tryst. And Luso-tropicalism is essentially a sexual transaction which resulted from a raced encounter, albeit one which in some ways made possible a merging of cultures. In the spirit of the transactions in which the Portuguese entered with the Other, the Other’s body became a vessel to be used for the reproduction of the Portuguese racial and cultural matrix. Indeed, this physical dimension of Portuguese colonialism has led Ferro to comment, in a chapter of his book entitled ‘A New Race of Societies’, that ‘the Portuguese conquered the world, not with the sword and the cross, but with sex’ (1997: 107). Were it not for the fact that the rape of the women ‘encountered’ abroad was such an intrinsic dimension of these transactions, there is almost a quaint notion of a colonial master intent on self-effacement. It is perhaps from what would seem to be this desire to be (with) the Other, in a ‘final communion’ of minds and bodies undertaken in the spirit of ‘simply doing business’, that outsiders often explicate the notion of a ‘kinder, gentler colonialism’ as a quality unique to the Portuguese model. At the risk of overstating the obvious, the point is that sex-sexual violation-became intrinsic to the Portuguese colonial enterprise; and as such as effective a weapon of disempowerment as the sword.[17]

Timothy Mo remarks in The Monkey King (1978) that the Portuguese in Macau ‘were different’. They are said to have mixed easily with the locals and to have paid little attention to the fulfilment of their whiteness, race being, in a post/colonial context, a crucial performative site. Equally, in his own, earlier version of a spot of pleasurably endured colonial anguish in Hong Kong and Macau, the British magistrate turned historian, Austin Coates speaks highly of the Portuguese fondness for taking in Chinese girls abandoned by their parents in the Macau of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like Mo, Coates is fascinated with the way the Portuguese did not seem ashamed of cohabiting with the natives, especially if they were female, I suppose. For Coates such actions speak ‘louder’ than the developmental impulses of British colonialism, and he attributes such ‘acts of kindness’ to the Jesuit imprint on Portuguese Catholicism. In his more recent work, and in the less effusive way that befits an historian, the Frenchman Marc Ferro declared himself similarly impressed by this sort of Portuguese colonial benevolence. Like Coates, Ferro is fascinated by the Portuguese caring manner towards the female (here we go again) orphans found in their colony of Macao. And for him too it is the Jesuit influence that most markedly influences this unique way of doing colonialism. Yet, one of the ironies of such largesse du coeur is the fact that, in the context of Portuguese Macao, often these girls were the offspring of (forced) relationships between Portuguese men and Chinese women, precisely the point Gayl Jones makes with reference to the American situation. Rape becomes in this sense the necessary exercise for the inclusion of the Other within such an ‘enlightened’ colonial enterprise.

Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, traditionally the Portuguese versions of their own colonial enterprise have ‘cashed in’ on this perception of a unique colonial template. As the sun threatened to set for good in the late imperial period of the mid-1960s, the Portuguese dictator, António Salazar waxed most eloquently on the sheer devotion of the Portuguese towards ‘their’ natives (see Davidson, 1972; McQueen, 1997; Busia, 1962). Indeed, the Portuguese have tended to stress the view that their colonial impulse was the result of a ‘genuine desire’ to trade with peoples from different parts of the world, rather than determined by any conquering intentions. Indeed, it is generally argued that the transactional impact of the Portuguese colonial encounters was felt in Africa, Asia and elsewhere primarily at the level of a narrow, largely littoral strip of land where they set up their trading posts. By reducing the encounter with the Other to a purely mercantilist level, Portuguese colonialism has been able to peddle its ‘inherently non-aggressive’ impetus. It has in effect at times adopted for itself in a position counter to that of other European powers by relating its expansionist drive to the political causes and consequences of the Treaty of Berlin, in the eighteenth century.[18]

More to the point, this unwillingness to colonize, in the sense of taking over and cultivating the land, of making it ‘profitable’ in the way European invasion since Columbus’ arrival in the Americas endeavoured to do, has itself been explained in terms of Freyre’s myth of Luso-tropicalism. Significantly, while the Portuguese themselves have long been keen to take advantage of such interpretations, as noted above, it also on occasion played against their interests. Thus the Calvinist regime of South Africa, and its very closely-affiliated neighbour, the Rhodesia of Ian Smith, felt the Portuguese were undeserving of the status they held as masters of the longest surviving European colonial empire. Seen from their racialist perspective, the Portuguese ‘cultural and sexual suppleness’ was read as a sign of a lower race, unable to take pride in that superiority innate in the European colonizing subjectivity. It undermined, by deed and example, those dichotomies so absolutely intrinsic to the regime of apartheid as existed in Anglophone Southern Africa, whether in its institutionalized form, as in South Africa, or as a more informal political system of racial discrimination and oppression as practised in Rhodesia. In one of those white African personal memoirs Anglo-American publishers seem to be unable to resist, the ‘Rhodesian’ (I suspect Zimbabwean would be an inappropriate term) Peter Godwin remarks in Mukiwa:

The Portuguese people themselves were quite strange. Although they were Europeans, they couldn’t speak English. In fact some of the boys at school called them sea-kaffirs, or Porks, and treated them as though they weren’t entirely white. They were unusual for whites because quite a few of them couldn’t read or write and did jobs that Africans did in Rhodesia (1996: 153).

Mukiwa‘s ambiguous status, part autobiography and part fiction, shows quite usefully how British imperial ideologies determine the perspective of a post(neo)colonial subject. Godwin’s child narrator goes on to comment on his father’s views that as colonial masters the Portuguese gave of the white man a very poor image. They were known to fraternize with the Africans and, like them, were renowned for their aversion to hard work.

It is obvious that the views of both the South African and the Rhodesian carry more than a residual echo of those of the British colonial project as envisaged by Lord Lugard in his Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (1965), where he developed the notion of ‘colonial trusteeship’. The crux of such a formulation was the view that ‘Britain had a dual obligation towards its colonies: first, to help the colonial peoples to advance, and second, to develop the resources of the colonies for the benefit of mankind generally’ (Busia, 1962:54). In Mukiwa, but already in Lord Lugard’s work, the Portuguese are seen to fail the test of the colonial task, that is, the ability to take up the white man’s burden, the civilizing mission. Ironically, then, for the very same reasons the Portuguese appear to have been simultaneously the best colonial masters (willing to engage in forms of intercourse with the local peoples whom they met that were unlike those found in other European colonial empires) and the worst (to the extent that they failed to take to its conclusion the Weberian project of modernization crucial to, say, British or French colonialisms). Their virtue is simultaneously their vice, since this tendency to go native at the sight of Other women leads also to a degenerate, promiscuous colonial model responsible (could it be?) for the failure of European colonialism as a whole. In Mukiwa, as the boy grows up, he joins the army and soon learns that Rhodesia’s greatest danger is not the ‘terros’, but the lazy, un-Weberian Portuguese next door, in Mozambique. In Mukiwa the Portuguese appear as the poor colonial role models they are because of an inability to perform the superiority of their (white) race. Their exotic value, which appealed to South Africans and Rhodesians on vacation in Mozambique, becomes ultimately the mark of their failure, and a sign of the weaknesses racialist discourses attribute to miscegenation.

As increasing numbers of Lusophone Africans continue to arrive in Portugal, in search of the opportunities Portuguese colonialism did little to create, and successive post-independence wars even less to nurture in the formerly colonized territories of Mozambique, Angola, Cape Verde and Sao Tomé and Principe, racial tensions have again become central to the way Salazar’s once ‘happy family’ relate to each other. Now, as ever, rigid racial structures determine the place and the way Lusophone Africans (will we ever refer to them as Afro-Portuguese?) occupy in Portugal. It is precisely for these reasons that I have sought to highlight the problematic nature of the ongoing resurfacing of Gilberto Freyre’s ‘Luso-tropicalism’ in analyses of the Portuguese colonial mission. Further, I have attempted to relate the way the continued shelf life of Freyre’s notion might in effect be seen as a natural reaction by Western epistemological systems to the persistent and effective attack by critics from former territories on the European colonial apparatus as a whole. Thus my earlier suggestion of ‘self-interested’ knowledge, borrowed from Foucault via Edward Said (1978), which in this sense I want to situate as intrinsic to the way Portuguese colonial discourses are read from the perspective of those for whom any colonial model, however adulterated, is seen as a potential tool to redress the ‘imbalance’ away from European domination in the world. As the continuing power struggles between Portugal and its former colonies demonstrate, colonial potentates, however insignificant their might looked from a British or French perspective, do not easily relinquish their role as the pallbearers of Western civilisation.



[1] Miguel Torga, in an address to the European Writers Parliament, in 1996, in Lisbon.

[2] See especially Young (1995) and Stoler (1995). Although such concerns gained particular relevance in the context of British colonialism, both Peter Hulme (1986) and Robert Young (1995) have explored similar issues in relation to the Spanish colonization of South America.

[3] The situation I am referring to here, differed from colony to colony, as Richard Preto-Rodas, among others, has noted. In Portuguese Africa: Toward Mutual Assimilation, Preto-Rodas writes: “Unlike his [sic] counterpart in Brazil and the South Atlantic islands, the Negro in Angola and Mozambique is not a member of a long-established national or local community cast in a European mold … With very little racial fusion, Portuguese Africa never witnessed the social and cultural mullatoisation of Brasil, and one would seek in vain for a gradual awakening of racial consciousness” (1981: 7).

[4] It would be ridiculous to suggest that slavery was the prerogative of Western colonialism, or that the journeys undertaken by Portuguese sailors in the fifteenth century constitute the starting point for the enslavement of Toni Morrison’s ’60 million and more’ (1987). There is an abundance of scholarly and fictional work focusing on the complicity of Arabs and Africans in the selling and buying of their own people. See, inter-alia, Hugh Thomas (1998); Abdulrazak Gurnah (1994); Armah (1971, 1975). But it was through the means made available by the Portuguese discoverers that Europe rediscovered for its own purposes that money was to be made in the sale of people of other races.

[5] Gilberto Freyre’s case was later developed in a series of other works, published throughout the following three decades. In the early 1960s Freyre travelled to Portuguese Africa. In Cape Verde, the most overtly creolized of all the Portuguese possessions in Africa, Freyre lamented the fact that the process of Luso-tropicalism had not developed as prolifically as it had in Brazil; specifically, he related this state of affairs to the fact that Portuguese Africa’s cultural production was both poor and almost non-existent. See, in particular, Freyre (1945; 1953; 1961).

[6] Ramos (1998: 66). That is also precisely how they are portrayed in two important, and still fairly pioneering attempts at analysing globally the European colonial project. I am referring specifically to the Austrian Urs Bitterli’s Alte Welt, neue Welt: Formen des europaisch-uberseeischen Kulturkontakts vom 15. bis zum 18. Jahrhundert ; translated into English as Cultures in Conflict (1989), and to Histoire des Colonisations (1994): translated into English with an even more ambitious title-Colonisation: A Global History (1997) by the Frenchman Marc Ferro. Both works examine the story of Portuguese colonization largely through a perspective which stresses the Portuguese role in the development of colonialism in its modern, Western version, in the fifteenth century, and their tendency to ‘go native’ in the ‘contact zone’ as potentially responsible for the creation of conditions which ensured that they would in time leave behind some of the most degraded former colonies of any European colonial power.

[7] For some of the most nuanced readings of the place of race in the Western imaginary, see Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1992) and Between Camps (2001); Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992); Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather (1995), and of course, the ground-breaking work of W.E.B. DuBois in the last century (1986, 1989).

[8] Although I acknowledge the temptation to read the Portuguese colonial enterprise within the same parameters of Spain’s own colonial project, I want to suggest that they differed greatly in their approaches to race. The notion of an “Iberian temperament which might have brought Portuguese and Spanish colonial masters close together, in fact kept them well apart. As Robert Young (1995) notes in a recent essay, to the Spanish desperate attempt to identify, classify and control mixed-race offspring we owe some of the most meticulous taxonomies of racial discrimination. Further, Bitterli is not alone when he points out in his work that, following the Spanish arrival on the island of Hispaniola, the local peoples came as close to extermination within the first five decades as was possible. He describes it as the first (I am tempted to add an adjectival qualification here-‘great) act of genocide perpetrated by Europeans against peoples outside of Europe (1989). It seems to me that Western developmental thought demands that we should speak always in terms of levels of greatness, as the recent events post-11 September 2001 in New York have reminded us.

[9] Cited in Ferro (1997:138-139). In Africa Speaks (1961), yet another of Salazar’s opponents, Henrique Galvão, spoke of the inevitability of a return to ‘barbarism’ and backwardness if the Portuguese were to relinquish their colonial empire. Perhaps such uniformity of opinion should not surprise-after all Galvão was himself a military man, and his disagreement with Salazar was over the brutal ways that the regime adopted in European Portugal, not in the colonies (or provinces, as they were then known). For a very illuminating selection of such assessments see Norrie McQueen (1997); also James Ciment (1997). Egerton’s Salazar: Rebuilder of Portugal (1943) also includes copious citations from Salazar’s speeches on Portugal and the African people it controlled. Although I am not aware that they are available in English, much more relevant in this context are Salazar’s regular ‘addresses to the Nation’, broadcast regularly on the radio and in which, a most unlikely Sheherazade, in the late 1960s he sought to prevent the inevitable end of what he saw as his empire. A biased but fascinating account of his dreams, nightmares to others, can be gleaned from Marcelo Caetano’s Minhas Memórias de Salazar (1977) (What I Remember of Salazar, or, more literally, My Memories of Salazar).

[10] By and large, Postcolonial Studies has been essentially an Anglophone phenomenon, though there is now sufficient evidence that critical practices inspired by the theoretical framework first proposed by Edward Said, Diana Brydon and Ashcroft et al., and in fact the much earlier work of Frantz Fanon, O. Mannoni and Césaire has now disseminated into Francophone and, indeed, Lusophone analyses of European colonialism. Indeed, recently Brydon’s work has been translated into Brazilian Portuguese (Brydon, 1995).

[11] In a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Bhabha proposes the view that power relations in colonial contexts involve a complex and simultaneous negotiation of power positions. For Bhabha, the colonized subject is never only in the position of victim, just as the colonial master too is unable to constantly exercise power. Bhabha identifies in the relationship between colonizer and colonized those moments of instability where the latter chooses to act in the way that he or she knows the colonizer expects them to. Since, as Said suggested, the colonizer created the colonized, Bhabha points out that they remain inextricably connected. Mimicry, rather than simply an exercise in manners, becomes in effect an act of conscious challenge to colonial discourses. See especially ‘Of Mimicry and Man’, ‘Signs Taken for Wonders’ and ‘The Other Question’, all in The Location of Culture (1994).

[12] My use of the term is a direct allusion to what, in the late period of the Portuguese colonial empire became an attempt to imbricate the celebrations of Portugal’s National Day (10 June), within a more politically expedient conflation of the various peoples in the empire as ‘the Portuguese race’. For some years, in one of the many last ditch efforts to appear as inclusive of the overseas territories and their inhabitants undertaken in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the regime in Lisbon stressed the date of 10 June as O Dia da Raça (‘The Day of the Race’). The phrase, intended to evoke a unitary notion of Lusophoneness, had the curious subliminal effect of reiterating the supremacy of the ‘white race’, here repositioned at the top of the hierarchical scale as the benevolent colonial master-shedding, sharing, his whiteness, but really making it an invisible marker of privilege and supremacy. Ironically, though the phrase was meant to erase race, this new usage of the term resignified it as a category into which all races became subsumed within the Portuguese white race.

[13] Both Bitterli and Ferro subscribe to the view that the Portuguese were naturally inclined to be friendly towards ‘Other’ people’s because, as a nation, they themselves were a mixture of Lusitanian and Mussulman nations.

[14] The point is made in no uncertain terms by Alfredo Bosi, in his A Dialética da Colonização (Dialectic of Colonization).

[15] Of course Freyre too is Bazilian, but his reading models were very much those of another time, inflected by different concerns. If there is one thing cultural and literary theories have taught us it is that the meaning of texts will forever depend on the questions we ask of them. That is not to subscribe, hook, line and sinker to a Derridean view of the text and of the act of interpretation, but to point out what postcolonial subjects and migrants have always known-the world looks very different indeed when viewed from a less than stable subject position.

[16] One of the most fascinating readings of this confluence of diverse, and indeed, conflicting identity markers is found in Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather (1995). See also Stoler (1997) and Young (1995).

[17] As a historian working within traditional methods of analysis, Ferro seems almost naively oblivious to the glaring symbolism of his metaphor. For my part, the suggestion that the rape of the colonized woman became a form of control and conquest is made with a very conscious awareness of the way colonized spaces have been (re) read as female, and equal to the woman’s body. I want to stress that I reject such interpretations, for as critics as diverse as Ama Ata Aidoo, Gayatri Spivak, Nina Mba and Kumari Jaywardena have noted, they inevitably create the conditions for a repositioning of the male subject as yet again the sole, or main agent of change and redemption.

[18] There is no lack of substantial evidence that they did travel inland, as their encounter with, and conversion of King Alfonso I, in the Kongo, illustrates. Indeed, in his writing one of the Portuguese scribes who accompanied the expeditions in search of the way to India, João de Barros, bears witness to their attempts to penetrate into the heart of Ethiopia, here symbolic of Africa and its riches. Barros wrote in 1450 that God seemed intent on ‘preventing the Portuguese from penetrating into the interior of the springs of this garden, whence proceed rivers of gold that flow to the sea in so many parts of our conquest’ (in Pratt, 1992: 69). Nevertheless, it is perhaps correct to stress the commercial nature of Portuguese colonial expansion. Although the beginning of the slave trade in the sixteenth century changed this situation, again the Portuguese mostly chose to await at the coast the delivery of human cargo brought to them by African and Arab slave traders. But there are many reasons why the Portuguese never aggressively pursued a land-based colonial policy, central to which might have been the 1580 occupation of Portuguese soil by the Spanish monarchy. This disruption of the Portuguese discoveries is often credited with having dealt a fatal blow to Portugal’s colonial enterprise (in power the Spanish pursued a policy of expansion of their markets and colonial projects, all the while allowing the Dutch to encroach into what had up to that point been Portuguese held territories, such as Brazil, Malacca, Timor).


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Full citation of the article:
Da Silva, Tony Simoes (2002). Raced Encounters, Sexed Transactions: 
Luso-Tropicalism and the Portuguese Colonial Empire.
Pretexts: Literary and Cultural Studies, Volume 11, Numero 1, pp.27-39.

This article was originally published in English by Professor 
Tony Simões da Silva . 
See Tony's profile in the author's area. 
For more information and to use this article contact the author 
by email: tony.simoesdasilva@utas.edu.au
Featured Image:
Light blue oval table on top of which the following objects: An open egg 
with the inside covered in gold leaf. Inside, a small sculpture of a black 
woman and a white man; she is laying belly down and he's on top of her. 
A rope is attached from his wrist to hers and with his other hand he covers 
her mouth indicating a rape situation. 
Also on the table, a 18th century-dressed white man pulls a rope attached 
to a black man's neck who follows him on his hands and knees. In front of 
them, the small sculpture of a collar-free dog. 
Following the curve on one side of the table, the inscription: 
"Só se sabe bem, quem se sabe livrar de si." an expression by 
Father Antônio Vieira, meaning roughly 
"to love oneself, is to be free of oneself".
Photograph taken at the exhibition Rio Setecentista, quando o Rio virou 
capital (18th century Rio, when Rio became capital), which took place at 
Museu de Arte do Rio between July 7th 2015 and May 8th 2016. 
Artist unknown, photo by this article's translator, manu.escrita.
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